When Helping Hurts

Very few people acknowledge the fact they like to struggle. Struggling makes us anxious, frustrated, and insecure. Life is so much easier when there's a quick solution, or at least answers from Google. 

This is what I deal with on a daily basis, at work- over 100 teenagers that hate to struggle. They panic when things get too hard or when they're not spoon-fed every ounce of information. I work with advanced students, so I'd say maybe 10 percent give up, 65 percent pester me to walk them through each step, and maybe 25 percent take initiative and power through whatever challenge they're facing. For example, over winter break I told them to read The Catcher in the Rye and write a creative and thought-provoking response that had to be long enough to get across their point. They were strictly told to not write a typical analytical essay.

"Yeah, but how many words does it need to be?"

"I'm confused- should I just pick a theme?"

"I don't get it. What do you mean by creative?"

And so on and so forth.

It was purposefully vague and open-ended, and I gave them a few general suggestions to help get the wheels spinning. And some went with it (the 25 percent) and wrote interviews with Holden's psychologist, sequels, prequels, and diary entries. I even had one student who turned the entire novel into limericks, chapter by chapter. I had several that did your typical literary analysis, and many who opted to get a zero in the grade book. It was simple: there were kids who were willing to struggle with the assignment and those who were not.

So why aren't they willing to put in the effort and initiative to solve problems on their own? Sure, part of it is maturity; they are teenagers after all. These crazy kids are still learning to prioritize and many don't understand the long term value in a lot of what they're asked to do. I guess we could blame it on some of their parents too, perhaps they're not expected to do enough at home or never told "no." Hell, we can put the ball in society's court- all this technology and whatnot makes it too easy on kids. And while to some degree all of those reasons are absolutely factors, I have to accept some of the fault on behalf of the system for which I work. The school system is making it too easy for students.

Before I go any further, let me stop and say there are hundreds and thousands of exceptions. Many of my colleagues, and I hope myself, push their kids day in and day out, as well as the students that are happy for the motivation. But there are many, many teachers out there that are more than willing to walk their students through everything, step-by-step in order to help them be successful on the first or second try. They reteach things excessively, refusing to move the class forward until everyone "has it." Teachers who refuse to assign research projects because the kids don't know how to tell a good source from a bad source. Teachers that won't have students write essays because the kids are poor writers. Sometimes helping is actually hurting.

But let's back up. Is it all the teachers' faults? Yes, we need to teach our students how to be independent thinkers, but are we allowed? Here's where it gets dicey. So many teachers feel this overwhelming sense of pressure to be doing the right thing at the right time so when an administrator walks in they won't get in trouble. We feel like we're solely evaluated by our test scores, rather than the true knowledge we impart on our students. We're told that we can't move on to the next topic until "80 percent" of our class is proficient in whatever skill we're trying to teach, and yet we're still expected to adhere to a pacing guide. If a principal or assistant principal walks into our classroom and sees kids "not getting it" it makes us as educators look bad. No on takes into account that students need to struggle- they need to understand what it means to really labor at something, whether it's the analysis of a poem or a complicated physics problem. With Common Core coming down the pipe students need to learn a new way to approach learning and problem solving. By not allowing our students to do this we are doing them such a terrible disservice- they will soon be adults, out in the real world, and unable to problem solve on their own because the very system that was supposed to teach them how to do so failed them.

Let's move up the chain some more. Can we even blame the administrators? Is it their faults that they want test scores to be high and students to show understanding? Of course not. They want to see learning in classrooms, and students failing to understand doesn't necessarily show this (although it may, ten minutes or two days later). Administrators are subjected to just as much pressure as we are as teachers, but by "district people." And the district feels the intensity put forth on them by the county and state. It's a horrible system that results in our students being coddled year after year all for the sake of the adults.

So what's the answer? Hopefully it's Common Core, but if the pressure for test scores still remains it may not be. The real answer is that we, as teachers, have to stand up for our students. We have to compromise with site administrators and prove to them that they can trust our judgement. Personally, I try to incorporate the strategies we're supposed to use while at the same time implementing at least some projects, assignments, and lessons that foster deep-thinking. I don't give them answers, I try to help them arrive at them as a class or as individuals. My students struggle. Sometimes they panic. They even cry on occasion. And sometimes I relent and walk them through things and sometimes I don't. I'm lucky this year in the sense that I teach the course I teach, but even if I taught the "regular" classes I'd work this way too. 

It's time to push the baby birds out and see if they can fly. Sure, we'll teach them how to do it, but at some point they need the big heave-ho. We need to give them a chance to prove to us that they can handle it.

And because this post was so serious, here's quote that shows us what not to do:


  1. It's so true! Hand feeding only hurts them in the long run. It used to drive me nuts when I saw teachers hand feed my classmates. All it did for them was make them more dependent on help. Sadly as a kid I felt I could only rely on myself and never asked for help......not surprisingly I put myself through college and the rest is history.

  2. First of all, you are clearly in the right profession and your students are lucky to have you, even if they don't know it yet.

    I'd like to think I was in that 25% when I was in school myself, but I'm sure I slipped into the 65% on occasion. I distinctly remember friends and classmates getting into a tizzy if there was ever any uncertainty involved and I usually couldn't relate. I worked hard and I always did well in school, so I guess I didn't worry if I struggled with one particular assignment or another -- it never felt like one stumbling block would lead to my academic ruin! And there was always a great sense of satisfaction when I finally "got" it, or when I came up with an idea for an open-ended project that I was really proud of.

    I took several classes the majority of other students found terrifying (not every single one available, I'll admit, but enough to be challenged) -- the teachers were tough, the assignments were hard, etc. etc. -- but looking back, they were taught by my some of my favorite teachers and I learned a LOT from them. For me, college was a breeze compared to high school -- I'm not 100% if that is a condemnation of the college I attended or high praise for my high school for preparing me so well.

    I can only speak about my experience as a student since I've never been a teacher. I can't even imagine how difficult a job it is when you have to navigate all these different issues and try to do right by so many different people. It's good to know that so many teachers have their students' best interests at heart even if the "higher ups" don't always see it that way.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I have to admit, though, that I am sometimes guilty of taking the easy way right- we all are. I think the intrinsic desire for knowledge is something that some of us have and some of us don't- those that don't are desperate for shortcuts. By the way, it cracks me up every time I get an comment from your and it shows up in my emails- "what, I commented on my post?" Haha.

    2. haha -- I do the exact same thing! I have to be careful not to automatically delete the email notification thinking it's my own comment :)